Essay / 15 May 2019

The Word Slayer

Tortuous Cruelty as Human History

I have not been audibly cruel for over twelve long, fruitful years. But back then, torture wasn’t up for discussion. It wasn’t on the table. There was no debate about its efficacy. It seemed an obvious consequence of the 20thcentury that the notion of torture itself implied moral peril. That any society that would speak of it, would countenance it, would make themselves historical. And resurrect concepts of evil. Cruelty embodied into a practise, becoming historical. Torture. And those societies, torturers, not yet reaching where we were. Making us, our cruelty, and perhaps it involved torture, unspoken, silent and less ethically perilous for that soundlessness. Was I cruel back then? Or just quiet about myself, and am now remembering that as an urge towards tortuousness?

I do recall knowing that incidents of cruelty had their being realised within history. Cruelty not only populating history, but becoming it, being history. Defining it. Cruelty is embodied in torture, though not limited to it, historically speaking. Torture makes history useful. As the maxim, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, suggests. Those who torture are raising the dead by not killing quickly the living.

I remember, very early into the unfortunate intellectualisation of my thinking, speaking with a writer and her saying that she could not unknow what she knew about the cruelties we have inflicted upon ourselves as a species. She said this as a way of explaining the seriousness of her work. I remember, too, a lecture by Harold Bloom where he declared torturers to be the only lost souls, beyond redemption. I remember the comfortable audience, murmuring in dissent. And in both these recollections I felt as though there had been expressed to me something I already knew and had long known. And now I realise, knowing I want to read about the cruelty of the past to understand the present, that I have contempt for those without perspective because they will not know what they cannot unknow. And that torture, the creative implication of the slow paining or murdering of other living beings, is an instrument of profound instruction, when unalive itself, on the page of history. Torture is that which imbues cruelty with deliberation. It is a history of human culture and creativity.

So now, torture is discussed once again, in the 21stcentury. It has been made alive by the words used to debate it, as though it had two or more sides to be considered. A history of cruelty, widely read as a gross mass market novel, or the Bible, would be a gift to humanity in this new century to reset that discussion. For in that tome would be contained the silence of its own readers. Perhaps no greater power could a book possess, than to render its audience numb and hollow, and quiet. Maybe it could make cruelty so large as to become mute and once more, in its emptiness, it would be removed from the dignity of debate?

I was once at a conference where a neuroscientist, trying to be nice to writers and artists in the room, of which I was one, described creativity as that which defines human evolution. They argued our species continued existence, and domination of the planet, is purely reliant on our ability to be creative, to break out of patterns of thinking and behaviour, and then retain what innovations suit our needs. I thought that this was not necessarily true, and if it was, then it defines creative people as those who create for creativity itself, for all other innovation has a purpose other than own innovativeness. I popped my hand up and expressed this. I expressed also that this was why people used poetry as a metaphor, rather than an artform in and of itself. And I said, and I don’t know why I said this, that if what they had claimed was true, it was also the reason why we are so rapacious and cruel. I then offered a few examples of what creativity brings us when it meets cruelty.

Did you know, for example, the Roman’s had five variations of the crucifix? This is nothing. They did so much more with suffering.

Did you know, for example, Native Americans would often stake their enemies down, wrists and ankles tied to poles in the earth and then rotten meat would be forced into their noses? Insects would lay eggs in the nostrils and hatch into the brain. The dying would die of thirst though, driven insane. But this is nothing. They did so much more with suffering.

Did you know, for example, the Chinese had a chainmail shirt with miniscule links they would fix around the body and draw in extremely tight, exposing tiny slivers of skin through the metal gaps, before running a razor across the mail, slicing the torso thousands of times, before releasing the string? The pain of the cuts would not be matched by the speed of the bleeding, so the procedure could be performed dozens of times. But this is nothing.

Did you know, for example, Plutarch describes The Boat thus, “The execution is performed like this: two boats are used that exactly fit. The prisoner is put on his back in one of them. He is offered food and he is drenched with a mixture of milk and honey. It is poured across his face. They keep his face turned to the sun and it becomes covered by the swarms of flies that settle. Then the other boat is laid on top. He is left for the rats and insects and vermin to prey upon him and slowly eat him away, from the bowels out. It took Mithridates 17 days to die. When the upper boat was lifted his body was a mass of maggots.” But this is something like dubious historical record.

Did you know, for example, a human skull from nearly 3000 years ago has been found to have been scalped, ritually? A knife drawn across the forehead and the skin of the head ripped off with a grip of the hair. But this is something like dating technology.

Did you know, for example, that Timur would behead those who resisted his sieges and make towers of their skulls? An eye-witness counted more than 28 towers constructed of about 1,500 heads each after one siege. But this is nothing, there is one story, probably apocryphal, whereby he ordered his chief architect to build a minaret of living human bodies, to be cemented together, with the bottom body still alive when the top was laid in place.

Did you know, for example, in Ernst G. Jung’s A small cultural history of the skin notes that the typical causes of death due to flaying was shock, critical loss of blood or other body fluids, hypothermia, or infections, and that the actual death after being skinned alive was estimated to occur from a few hours up to a few days after the flaying itself. Already from the times of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) the practice of flaying was displayed and commemorated in both carvings and official royal edicts.

Did you know, for example, the British Empire suppressed the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya with techniques which included beating genitals with a flexible rhinoceros-hide cane called a kiboko, injecting battery acid into rectums, tying people by their noses to keeps with copper wire and dragging them along a road?

But this I’ve known this for quite some time, and with such knowledge we should show restraint. And I should not have mentioned the 20thcentury! What a silly whistle stop tour through our species! For a longer list, consult books and reset my clock for I have not been legibly cruel for over twelve long, fruitful seconds, since you finished reading this article.